Purple Reign

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern

In anticipation of this year’s Super Bowl in New Orleans, Rolling Stone put together a list of the Top Halftime shows from years gone by. The top show, at least in my opinion, was Prince’s turn at Super Bowl XLI in Miami. In case you’ve blocked it out over what happened to the Bears on that day, here’s a quick recap:

Fireworks and pyrotechnics; two fine-looking dancing women; jaw-dropping guitar work; a marching band; some shadowy images of Prince’s, should we say, unique guitar; and a hypnotic, show-stopping finale; all against the backdrop of a healthy rainstorm.

In short, Purple Rain was performed in the purple rain. How does it get better than that?

Since watching this performance again online, Purple Rain has been stuck inside my head for nearly a week. And it was against this mental soundtrack that Northwestern University and the Chicago Cubs announced a partnership that will significantly raise the profile of both parties in the years ahead. It certainly points toward some very good things in the near future..

Northwestern could never build a 75,000 seat football stadium on Chicago’s North Shore. The neighbors wouldn’t stand for it, and the Wildcats’ fan base, as supportive as it is, sometimes struggles to fill up the 50,000 seats of Ryan Field. But who needs to do that, now that the Cats have access to iconic Wrigley Field?

And don’t think that this recruiting tool is going to go unused, either. What high school prospect–when faced with making the biggest decision of his young life–won’t jump at the chance to step onto the field at Clark and Addison? And who among us wouldn’t do the same thing, if we had that chance?

This arrangement, along with with the new sports facility being planned along the lakefront on Northwestern’s campus, is a sure sign that Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald isn’t going anywhere. That’s going to be another huge advantage Northwestern will have in recruiting during the years ahead.

When Notre Dame gets back to work next summer–seeking to quickly get to Manti Who?–they will be dogged by questions about Brian Kelly’s future. He’s already interviewed with an NFL team, after steadily rising through the coaching ranks in college. It’s naïve to think that he’ll be at Notre Dame long term. From watching how the annual Gary Barnett Soap Opera played out in the late 1990s, I can confidently say that one or two years of that will be more than enough for anyone in South Bend.

Bret Bielema, who seemed to be Wisconsin’s coach for the foreseeable future, has flown the coop in Madison for the greener pastures of the SEC. Urban Meyer, who will have National Championship pressures for however long he’ll be at Ohio State, is something of a coaching nomad, himself.

And then there’s Coach Fitz. You may recall how he first put Northwestern’s football program back on the map, as a player back in the 1990s. As an alumnus, and a tireless ambassador for the school and the program that he has built, he has the unwavering support of the University, the Athletic Department, and the student body. There’s no chance of him leaving anytime soon, and that stability means everything for teenagers who don’t want the rug pulled out from under them. That’s exactly what happens, whenever a head coach moves on to someplace else.

It’s taken several years, and many disappointments, but things are now falling into place very quickly for Northwestern football. With a bowl victory, a loaded team coming back in the Fall, a respected head coach, a new training facility on the drawing board, and an arrangement to play in Wrigley Field in the future, a golden age of Wildcat football seems to be just a few months away. It could even end up as a Purple reign.

I was dreaming when I wrote this

prince-1999

As we begin the final month, either of the year or of civilization on earth, I’m reminded of Prince’s song “1999” from the album of the same name. The premise of the song is that if the world is coming to an end, we should all have fun before it does. My favorite line is one that Prince himself didn’t even sing: “Life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last.”

When the end comes, if it ever does at all, it would be nice to have a bit of warning, but I don’t think it will work out that way. If the Mayans are right, well, this should be one hell of a month. But I have a feeling that come New Year’s Day, a month from now, there’s going to be some Mayans with a lot of ‘splaining to do. I hope so, anyway.

99 Cubsballoons go by

There’s something about the number 99. Maybe it was because I grew up watching reruns of Get Smart, and Barbara Feldon’s Agent 99 was always so much easier on the eyes—and the ears—than Don Adams’ abrasive 86. The Cubs, for their part, are closing in on 99 losses for a season, which is something they haven’t done in my lifetime.

In almost 40 years of following the Cubs, there are only three things that I haven’t yet seen: The World Series (of course), 100 wins or losses in a season, and for the Cubs to be on the wrong end of a no-hitter. Since Carlos Zambrano threw his no-hitter in Milwaukee, you could put seeing a no-hitter in Wrigley Field on that list, too. But otherwise, there’s nothing that I haven’t seen the Cubs do to an opponent, or seen someone else do to the Cubs.

But what’s so interesting about the number 99 is the amount of music it has inspired. When all of us were kids, once of the first songs that we all learned was “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Never mind whether it’s inappropriate to be singing to kids about beer drinking when they don’t know what beer is, anyway. Maybe it’s just teaching them how to run up a tab, which isn’t such a bad skill to have if you plan to follow the Cubs one day.

Back in 1979, a band called Toto had a hit song called “99.” I always assumed it had something to do with the aforementioned Agent 99, but apparently it was written to honor George Lucas’ film THX-1138. You learn something new every day.

Three years later, Bruce Springsteen released “Nebraska.” If you’ve ever seen Springsteen perform live, you may have been lucky enough to see “Johnny 99,” which is much more fun live than the studio version is. And Johnny Cash even did a pretty swingin’ version of the song, but then again, Johnny Cash could turn any song into something great.

The following year, Prince came along and hit it big with “1999.” Even though the song was recorded sixteen years before the actual year, it was eminently danceable, and was the title track to what was his biggest hit to that time. Many musicians would love to have a song that well-known, but Prince then went on to even bigger and better things the following year with “Purple Rain.”

At about the same time as Prince’s song, there was an unknown German band called Nena scored a huge international hit with “99 Luftballoons.” The video got played on MTV, even though nobody knew what she was singing. It had the “we’re all gonna die in an accidental nuclear war” theme that briefly permeated the culture (see also Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” and the movie “WarGames,” among other examples). The song was recut into English, and it became a hit all over again. That synth line just couldn’t be denied, I guess.

And to bring the number up to a more current sound, Jay-Z gave us “99 Problems” back in 2006. The Cubs themselves were awful back in 2006, as it was the final year of the Dusty Baker era in Chicago. They fell out of contention in May, but stabilized a bit and wound up with 96 losses that year. Or to put it another way, the Cubs had 96 problems but, once the season was over, a manager wasn’t one.

So, barring an unexpected turn toward respectability in the desert this weekend, the Cubs will hit 99 losses for the first time that many of us have ever seen. And from there, there’s only one place left to go.

And here is a souvenir, Just to prove the Cubs were here….      

Only want to to see you in the Purple Rain

Only want to see you in the Purple Rain, July 18

A couple of decades ago, when I was in high school, I had a job bagging groceries in a supermarket. One of the duties of this job was clearing the lot, which meant bringing in all of the shopping carts from out in the parking lot.

There was a certain trick to being able to line up 15-18 carts and successfully bring them into the store. I see little robotic carts that are now used at Target and places like that for the same purpose. But we had no such gadgetry available to us back then.  And it was also a nice break from asking people if they wanted their items in paper or plastic  bags.

On day, I’m guessing it was in 1985, the store manager told me to go and clear the lot. It was pouring rain at the time, and I didn’t have a poncho or a raincoat or anything to keep the water off of me. But you gotta do what you gotta do, even if it only paid something like $3.50 an hour back then. So out to the lot I went.

I recall getting through the experience by singing, in a rather loud and unabashed way, Prince’s song Purple Rain. What that afternoon lacked in purpleness, it more than made up for with rain. Lots and lots of rain.

This evening, as I watched the rain coming down outside, and thought about a memory that I had long forgotten all about, I came to realize that music takes on a whole new meaning when it’s raining. Think of Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain.” What a glorious feeling, he sang (and danced), and the scene wouldn’t have been the same without the rain coming down. It was as if he didn’t mind the rain at all. In other words, Let it rain.

A few years ago, Prince played the halftime show at the Super Bowl. Of all the Super Bowls that have ever been played, this is the only one that’s been played in the rain. So what did Prince do, after playing the obligatory hits medley first? If you guessed that he turned the house lights purple and played that song for the thousands in the stadium, and the millions, like myself, watching on television,  you would be absolutely correct. It was almost as if someone had ordered up the rain for Prince on that day.

The rain has now stopped, and tomorrow will probably be another miserably hot and humid day. But the flowers and the grass and the crops all needed the rain, and they must have also felt a bit like Gene Kelly tonight. Or those fans at halftime of the Super Bowl in Miami. Or even me, in that supermarket parking lot all those many years ago. Come on with the rain, indeed.

I know this much is true

At the end of a long day at work today, I faced the prospect of a long commute to get home. It always seems like getting to work takes 15 minutes in the morning, and getting home takes an hour in the evening. Some of that is psychological–does anybody look forward to work more than home?–and some is because I don’t take the tollway on the way home. When the tolls are doubled, as they were here some time ago, it makes taking the tollway each way seem like an extravagance.

To pass the time on the way home today, I had a CD filled with hits from the 80s. Songs that, whether I loved or hated them back in the 80s themselves, are now a treasured part of my past. It’s very bizarre to think of Billy Squier as being a treasure, but two minutes of FM hit radio in 2012 is enough to make me start singing “Everybody Wants You.”

At one point, about five or six songs into the CD, a song started to skip, and I wasn’t able to listen to it. What surprised me today, and probably would have disgusted the  teenager I once was, was that I was disappointed when I couldn’t hear Spandau Ballet’s “True.”

Back in the 1980s, I listened to Def Leppard, Judas Priest, the Scorpions, Quiet Riot, Night Ranger, and pretty much any other “hair metal” band that was on the radio or on MTV. I listened to some other things too, like Prince, Bruce Springsteen, and Run-DMC. So I wasn’t locked into just one type of music, but I did have my preferences. And Spandau Ballet wasn’t among them.

But things changed over time. I was once a simmering cauldron of confusion, anxiety, frustration, insecurities, bravado, and stupidity, with a thick outer layer of smart-ass holding it all together. I was waiting for my life to start back then, oblivious to the fact that I was already living it, and once those teen-aged days were gone, they weren’t coming back again. I actually wanted that to happen back then, but now I wish I had found some way to enjoy the moment a bit more than I actually did.

So the me that once hated Spandau Ballet, because they didn’t have long hair and guitar solos, is gone. In his place is someone who’s lived enough to know more about how the world is, and how people are, and how things turn out the way they’re supposed to, whether you see them coming or you don’t. Someone who can appreciate a catchy melody and a nice sentiment in the lyrics. And someone who is a lot more comfortable in his own skin than that kid from three decades ago.

The next song played without a hitch (“She’s a Beauty” by the Tubes), and before too long I was back at home, living a life that the teen-aged me might find interesting, or boring, or perhaps someplace in between. But at least there’s now room in it for a song by Spandau Ballet.

F/U/S/G

Of all the many seasons I’ve been a Cubs fan, 1984 ranks as my favorite one. The year 1984, all by itself, was an important year in my life. It was the year that I learned how to drive a car and, when my birthday came around, I got my license to drive. And whoever you are, life changes in a big way once that happens.

1984 was also when I got my first “real” job, as a grocery bagger in a local supermarket. I kept the job throughout high school, mostly because I was only scheduled to work on the weekends, so as not to interfere with my studies. I settled into a “study during the week, work and go carousing on the weekend, and then start all over again on Monday” cycle that I wouldn’t break out of for many years afterward.

And 1984 also had some great music. Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Prince’s Purple Rain were probably the best 1-2 album punch of my lifetime. The phrase “I want my MTV” had relevance because it hadn’t yet come to the local cable provider, but music videos like “What’s Love Got to Do with it” and “Missing You” were showing that the genre had lots of possibilities. Give me any song from 1984 on the radio over any of the junk that gets played on “hit radio” today.

And against this backdrop of change and possibility, the Cubs decided to start winning. There was the “Daily Double” of Bob Dernier and Ryne Sandberg at the top of the batting order, along with Harry Caray, who gave them their name and gushed about baseball in a way that I han’t seen before. There was Gary ‘Sarge” Matthews in left field, Ron “Penguin” Cey at third Base, and Leon “Bull” Durham at first base. There were no lights anywhere to be seen at Wrigley Field, Rick Sutcliffe was unbeatable on the mound, and the Cubs had a leggy “ballgirl” named Marla Collins. The 1984 Cubs were a rocking good time, all summer long. It was as good a summer as I’ve ever had in my life.

The Cubs wrapped up their first division title in Pittsburgh, with Rick Sutcliffe going the distance. So one itch had been scratched, but a bigger prize lay over the horizon. And it seemed inevitable after the Cubs won the first two playoff games at Wrigley Field. Sutcliffe–the pitcher!–even went deep in the Cubs’ first playoff win. He was nearly superhuman by that point.

And then the team went out west. And Steve Garvey, who is the easily most reviled player I can think of for Cubs fans my age, hit a home run off of Lee Smith. He circled the bases with his fist raised in the air, and burned his way into my baseball memories. I wish I could evict him from the place that he occupies, but I can’t do it. Nothing better has come along in the deades since then.

But Garvey’s home run only sent the series to Game five. And that’s where Rick Sutcliffe ran out of gas. That’s where Leon Durham turned into Bill Buckner, two years before Bill Buckner did. and that’s where the good times came to a crashing halt. I said it was too good to be true, and it turned out that it was.

Steve Garvey, having been unsuccessful in his bid to buy the Dodgers franchise, now wants to buy the Padres instead. I’m hopeful he doesn’t succeed in this, but I think that he might just do it. Either way, the image of him running the bases, with a fist raised in triumph, will linger until further notice. I want to believe that this can be exorcised by making it to the World Series some day, but until then it looks like I’m stuck with it. I can certainly tell you that it’s no way to live.

NOTE:   The styling of the title for this post is an hommage to Prince’s D/M/S/R from his 1999 album.